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Review: Severn Valley Railway
Developer: BluearrowTS, Publisher: JustTrains
Reviewed By Matthew Peddlesden
Date: 23 October 2003


Full Disclosure

I became a member of the BluearrowTS team myself right at the very end of the product where I developed the activities as well as performing some other small tasks. I also submitted some content for the manual.

UKTrainSim also has a full colour advert on the inside of the front page for the SVR manual which it did not pay for.

The SVR advert on the front of the site is being paid for by JustTrains.

Kidderminster in the evening GWR 28xx Prepares to depart, note the lovely glow from the fire Passenger view as we pass the water tower on the left Night textures are fantastic, the houses look the part with lights on etc.

There are two aspects to a commercial MSTS product that will determine its success in the market, the first and most obvious is how well it has been developed and produced and the second perhaps less obvious one is the choice of what to model in the first place. It doesn't matter if you model something really well if what you've modelled isn't very interesting. Two commercial products spring to mind that were developed quite well but the choice of what to model was fundamentally going to limit their success - High Speed Trains (a high speed line with no yards and only one station at either end) and LTV Erie Mining Company (trees, trees and more trees, one yard at either end).

So when I first heard that a 16 mile preserved railway was going to be modelled in MSTS I was quite curious - although I will admit that back at this time I knew very little about what happened on preserved railways - will this make an interesting add-on for MSTS or will it turn out to be another short lived novelty with not much to do on it and we end up back on our favourites such as Mideast and Ruabon Barmouth.

Let's look at what is in the box, two CD's believe it or not, plus a manual and numerous other miscellaneous bits such as a JustTrains catalog and the registration card. The CD's stand out for me because they are very pretty in full colour, a step above some other commercial efforts that are just a plain white CD with writing or a black and white picture.

The massive coach shed, complete with all its lights! It's what is in the background that really makes a scene look real Glow from street lamps and other industrial buildings Even the steam shows the glow from the fire as it passes over the cab

The manual is quite comprehensive detailing a history of the real preserved railway itself, giving you instructions on viewing a map of the route in the activity editor, creating your own consists and so forth. There is a complete list of all 22 activities with descriptions and where necessary there are a couple of hints (some of the activities require refueling and in this instance it shows you how to do that for example). There is also a beginners guide to driving steam engines on AI fireman - those of you that have visited a UKTrainSim Live! show might well recognise this text as being on one of the handouts we have available. There are also detailed descriptions of all the locomotives included as well as a list of all the rolling stock. In short, the manual looks to contain everything that most people will need to get the best out of the product even if they are just coming to MSTS for the first time.

Once installed there are three things we need to focus our attention on, Route, Stock and Activities.

Route
The route runs 16 miles from Kidderminster through Bewdley, Arley, Highley, Hampton Loade and terminates at Bridgnorth. It's primarily single track with double track at stations. There is a fairly large yard at Kidderminster, also home to their only turntable (which of course does not function in MSTS due to limitations of the simulator) and the enormous new Coaching Shed.

View from the back as we approach the tunnel for Bewdley Coming out of the tunnel, bound for Bewdley Even a snowscape looks outstanding here! Coming in to Bewdley

The route runs at a max speed limit of 25mph from end to end as is standard for all Light Railways in the UK. Along the route you will find the speed limit changing very frequently including one 5mph stretch that seems to take an eternity to get through!

The route, to be blunt, is drop dead gorgeous. Every building is photo textured so as you pull out of Bewdley station heading North you can look down to the left over the bridge and you'll instantly recognise it - the Severn Valley Guest House that the UKTS crew stayed at for the Diesel Gala weekend is very clearly visible :) It really is quite spooky the first time you visit the real SVR having spent quite a bit of time in the virtual one as I don't think anyone can really be prepared for just how close it is to the real thing. Sure, it's not perfect, but in my opinion I don't think it's reasonably possible to get much closer.

As well as Summer day time there are also Autumn and Winter textures as well as Night and Winter Night textures. Running the route at night in the Winter looks stunning with all the lights from the masses of surrounding buildings.

Crossing over to come in to the platform at Bewdley Pulling in to the platform The stations are stunning day and night Our Friends of Hagley Hall Photo Charter ready to depart Arley with some freight wagons

There are lots of little touches on the route that have become the trademarks of two of the developers, Tim Court and Terry Thornton. There's lots of wild life - and not just at the Bewdley Safari Park, and some of it is getting up to no good (watch out for the bunnies...), as you go over Victoria Bridge if you can get the camera to let you, you can see there is a fisherman sitting on the bank way below you - but he's not just sitting there, he's casting his rod, a fish is swimming around and he's catching it. You'll find a hot air balloon , a spitfire flying and a Battle of Britain memeorial flight all buzzing around in the air at various points in the route. There's a young boy flying a kite near one station and someone else is flying a radio controlled model aircraft (although this appears to be illegally close to the railway). At Kidderminster you will see a JCB loading something in to a truck, the truck drives in to the scene, moves forward a little as the JCB loads it up and then when done the truck drives off ready for another one to arrive. The route is full of things to look at - not to mention some truly beautiful work on the masses of trees and other flora around the route. You're only going 25mph at best, but who needs to rush when there's this much to look at? I've probably had the route now for around 4 months and I'm still finding things I hadn't spotted before (for example, a couple of days ago I'm sure I saw a commercial airliner in the skies...)

Sounds on the route haven't been neglected either, there are plenty of sounds along the entire route that have been actually sampled from the place that you can hear them literally by setting a recorder going and leaving it for half an hour on a bench or something. This adds a great deal to the general mood of the route, it's not quiet so you feel like you're part of a more living world with car sounds, bird whistles and so forth.

The track layout isn't 100% true to the real SVR however this is generally where the real route uses slips etc that are not possible in the standard MSTS track system. Signalling has been placed accurately and the whole thing had to get the seal of approval from SVR before it could have their name and endorsement on the product.

Our Friends of Hagley Hall Photo Charter ready to depart Arley with some freight wagons View from the guards van at the back, we can even see a hot air balloon flying On our way to Bewdley Sheep? Tractors? Farmers? This must be that 'countryside' thing...

What is the route like from an operational perspective? You've got passenger operations up and down the route of course, but there is also a yard at Kidderminster, a loco shed at Bridgnorth, some extra lines at Highley, some sidings in Arley and a small yard and works at Bewdley - there's plenty of room to bang some wagons around if that's what you like to do.

There are a few minor issues with signalling although most people probably won't notice them, those that either know the route very well or understand semaphore signalling to some detail will possibly spot some bits that seem a little odd.

It'll take you 1 hour 16 minutes to drive the route from end to end if you follow speed limits and timetables where applicable, with all these limits and various gradients you really have to watch what you're doing and that 1 hour 16 minutes will not be spent tapping the desk bored, this route is a real drivers route.

Stock
The stock list will blow most people away - take a recent commercial release from another company which had an excellent route and two different locos, when you compare that to the 13 Steam and 2 Diesels that are included in this product that pales in to comparison. I personally think that the stock on this pack would have sold quite well on their own - we've already had "Roundhouse" and "Engine Shed" that obviously didn't do too badly and the loco's on the SVR product seriously outshine anything that was on either of those two packs. The developers have tried to model most of the steam stock from the SVR - it isn't complete, one notable exception I am sorry to say is that the A4 60009 Union of South Africa is not present in the product.

I've now found out there's a good reason 60009 wasn't included in the pack, all I can say is... keep your eyes open...

Over the beautiful Victoria Bridge Looking down over in to Bewdley it really is photo realistic, you won't believe how close it is! Pulling past the Green 108 DMU Going to the left side of the platform

So what do you get?

BR 8F 48773
BR 1501
BR 7714
BR Black 5 45110
BR Ivatt 46443
BR Manor 7819
BR Standard 4 Tank 80079
BR 4566 in BR Green
BR Manor 7802 in BR Green
GWR 2857
GWR 5764
GWR 060ST 813 Saddle Tank
GWR Hall 4930
D1013 Western Ranger (blue livery, has a night cab variant also)
D3022 Class 08 Shunter

The Green 108 DMU has been donated to the pack very kindly by Buffy500 and Hymek but is only present in a static non driveable form because there was no custom cab or sounds available for it. It provides a nice touch to the scenery in activities however.

Quite a selection! All locomotives have superb custom cabs and sounds including whistles and so forth.

Rolling stock includes Mk 1 coaches in Blood and Custard, Western Region Chocolate and Cream and BR Maroon plus a rake of Gresley and LMR coaches. PBG, NSX and NNX Postal wagons, plus a large selection of freight wagons including Vans, Tankers, Coal Wagons, Guards Vans and more.

There is a photograph on the FoHH web site in black and white that this activity was based on, and this screenshot tries to mimic that photograph in the simulator. Passenger train waiting to depart Bridgnorth, sheds on the left and loco's awaiting repair in the siding next to the platform. Ivatt ready to depart! D1013 Western Ranger sits in the shed warming up next to Black 5

All the locomotives are presented in normal drivable versions plus AI versions which have been tweaked to make the steamers look and sound right and also dead versions where they provide no power and no brakes - just lots and lots of weight. All the steamers have glowing fires and ash pans and look stunning at night with all that glowing :)

Again, all of the sounds have been recorded directly from the real loco that they are for and Stuart Williamson and Jeff Ashton have granted permission for their freeware track sounds pack to be included so you get that lovely extra depth to the sound of the trains running down the rails.

I have no complaints about the stock included, other than the lack of 60009 (which i'm only mentioning because the A4 happens to be my favourite class of Steam). It's all gorgeous, especially 1501 and Black 5!

Activities
This is the bit that I am less able to comment on in a neutral manner because I wrote all of the activities on the pack. There are 22 included activities, with some of the activities are split in to two parts. The activities range from running up and down the route in various locos and consists at various times of the year to some slightly less straight forward ones such as a shunting puzzle in Bewdley yard, a couple of rescue activities (Steam rescues Diesel and Diesel rescues Steam) and several activities that try to capture the Steam School days for the Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced levels and the Diesel Driving School.

The activities might have you refueling in some cases and in others you might need to run around your train to haul it back the way you came. Front coupling is functional and required (so make sure you have the latest MSTS patch installed first).

The shunting puzzle activity at Bewdley leaves the solution entirely up to you, you have to operate the points to pull a selection of wagons out and bring them to the goods shed at Bewdley but how you solve the puzzle is entirely up to you.

Cab view from D1013 Western Ranger Another train ready to depart, bound for Highley Class 08 at Highley Cab view from Class 08

There's plenty of AI traffic to be seen on most of the activities as well which adds more of a feeling of how busy the real SVR can be at times. Nothing runs up and down the main line however but this is because there is no stock in the pack suitable for this. You only spend a small amount of time at Kidderminster anyway so this is not something that many people will feel is lacking - I don't recall seeing much or any traffic on that line during my three visits to the railway anyway, so it can't be that busy :)

Introductory Train Ride
An Introductory Train Ride is included that does the run from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth in 48773. The American lady who normally tells you of all the benefits of MSTS has been replaced in this ITR with a description of the Severn Valley Railway and the MSTS product to listen to. The ITR is something that we use at Exhibitions quite a lot - when we need to leave a machine unattended - so I always appreciate the extra time taken to polish this up.

Overall
It's very hard to find fault in this product, very hard indeed. The feeling of immersion as you pull in to a station and the AI train steams up and departs is really amazing. The overall quality of the route and stock is second to none. In my opinion, the only reason that somebody might dislike this product or not get a lot of fun out of it is if they actually don't like the fundamental principles of it - remember it's a short 16 mile route with a 25mph speed limit at the max (and you'll spend a lot of time slower than 25mph). It is primarily a passenger route but there are opportunities for simple freight operations. I cannot fault the product, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily right for you - hopefully by now you know whether this is a product you can enjoy.

Cab view from 28xx

You won't be able to run this product on a low end machine but i've heard from people using it on as low as an 800 - while it's not the most pleasant experience it does work. I would personally recommend that the spec on the back of the box (1.2ghz) is worth noting. At exhibitions we've been using 1.7 ghz , 2.0 ghz and 2.4 ghz machines with no problem. It is important to note that a product with this much detail is going to require some horse power on your PC - but thanks to some amazing work by the guys in optimising draw distances and polygon counts, you'll be surprised that despite how much you don't need for that much detail.

One thing that does disappoint me is that the product just isn't available as widely as any other MSTS products. On a recent trip to Lakeside Shopping Center, one of the biggest malls in the area, I found a whopping two copies in the entire mall. In comparison I found as many as four times as much in each of other add-ons such as London Brighton, Japanese Routes, Protrain 3 and so forth. You're going to have to look and look hard to find it, it is there but it's apparently only taken on very low stock levels in comparison to any other MSTS add-on. I am not sure what the reason for that is, but given that this is such as high quality add-on, it's a crying shame to see it let down at the last post.

Update

I've just heard that PC World have placed orders now and it should be on the shelf very soon if not already at PC World stores around the country. Excellent news, keep it up JustTrains.

Addendum
It seems that somewhere along the line something didn't go quite right and the product has an incorrect ITR (the narration says you start at Kidderminster, in actual fact you start at Bridgnorth). A patch should be out by the time this review is online to fix this problem (it should in fact start from Kidderminster as the narrator says!).

Background
Towards the end of the development of SVR I was contacted by BluearrowTS because they wanted to give me a beta copy to submit my comments on as well as to give me a heads up so I could start thinking about this review. Shortly after that I found out that they were missing all the activities and didn't have an activity author - I offered to fill the gap and produced all of the 22 activities that are included in the product. I will add that at this point the loco's and stock were 99.9% finished and the route was 99.9% finished - the reason that I wanted to contribute to this product was simply down to the fact that I absolutely loved it.

Additionally...
Not part of the SVR product itself, but we at UKTrainSim are putting together a special Diesel Gala add-on pack for it which will provide you with a number of the diesels from UKTrainSim including cabs and sounds (also from the site) relevant to the SVR. This is either because they are based there or have visited there at some point. There should be around 17 loco's on it plus another 20 activities to use them in. It is hoped this will be available very soon and you will be able to get it from the CD ordering page for 4.50 including VAT and P+P when it's ready.

Conclusion
I'm giving this product our highest score ever:

99.5%



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